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Q&A: Imam takes reader questions on Islam and violence against women

The sun sets behind a minaret in the centre of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

ALI JAREKJI/Ali Jarekji/Reuters

In advance of the Dec. 6 anniversary of the killings at Montreal's École Polytechnique, a broad coalition of Muslim leaders issued a condemnation of domestic violence, particularly honour killings. One of those leaders, Imam Syed Soharwardy - founder of the Islamic Supreme Council and a long-time anti-violence advocate - took reader questions on the issues raised by the leaders' statement.

Reader question: What can I, as a white non-Muslim woman, do to help Muslim women who are victims of domestic violence? In offering my help, how can I be seen as credible and not presumptuous and what do I need to be mindful of?

Thank you, Barbara Balfour

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Imam Syed Soharwardy: Thank you, Barbara. The best help you can provide to a Muslim family, especially women, is to inform them about the help available in Canada. You should also know some basics of Islam on the issue of domestic violence. This will help you to communicate with these women, and build some credibility and trust with them. In Islam it is Haraam (forbidden) for a man to hurt his wife even if she is involved in activities that go against Islam. What Islam requires from its followers is to inform people about the teachings of Qur'an and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). No family member (including parents, husbands, brothers, etc.) are allowed to hurt any family member for committing sins. They are required to educate and inform, without violence or force. In Islam, no apparent obedience of Allah is acceptable to Allah unless the person does it with his or her heart. Therefore, beating or abusing a family member in order to force them to follow Islam is not acceptable to Allah. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, "help the oppressed and the oppressor". People asked Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): We understand how to help the oppressed, but how should we help the oppressor? He replied, "by stopping him from the oppression".

If a person commits illegal or illegitimate actions, in Islam only an institution with authority such as the police, courts or government can punish the person - not family members or other people. Honour killing is a major sin in Islam.

In case you think a person needs to talk with someone from the Muslim community, you should have the contact info of some of the Muslim organizations who are working in the area of domestic violence. For more information, you can also e-mail

Reader question: Nearly 60 Muslim associations have issued a statement condemning domestic violence, particularly honour killings, saying the practice has nothing to do with Islamic teachings and "[violates]clear and non-negotiable Islamic principles."

However, how do you reconcile the fact that there are indeed many instances in the Quran that call for violence against women? As just one example, a verse from the Quran (An-Nisa, 34) states:

Men are (meant to be righteous and kind) guardians of women because God has favored some more than others and because they (i.e. men) spend out of their wealth. (In their turn) righteous women are (meant to be) devoted and to guard what God has (willed to be) guarded even though out of sight (of the husband). As for those (women) on whose part you fear ill-will and nasty conduct, admonish them (first), (next) leave them alone in beds (and last) beat or separate them (from you). But if they obey you, then seek nothing against them. Behold, God is most high and great."

Do you at least acknowledge the fact that the Quran does provide men with enough fuel to perpetrate violence against women? How do you intend to preach non-violence in light of these facts?

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Regards, Mark Bessoudo

Imam Syed Soharwardy: Thanks Mark. The translation of verse 34 of Surah An-Nisa is as follows:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds (and last) strike them (with tooth brush); but if they return to be faithful, seek not against them means (of annoyance): for Allah is Most High, Great (above you all).

People quote this verse and two other verses from Qur'an to prove the superiority of man. In fact, there is no superiority of anyone over another based upon gender. In Islam, superiority of a person is based upon piety.

In this verse, what Allah has described are the higher responsibilities of a man. A man is responsible to earn, to pay the bills and take care of the family. Although women are allowed to work in Islam, it is mainly a responsibility of the husband.

Therefore, there is no gender-based superiority in Islam. In fact, the relationship between a husband and wife is based upon mutual love, respect and care: "They (wives) are your garments. And ye are their garments." (Qur'an 2:187)

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Regarding "strike them with tooth brush", it is an extreme situation. If a married woman establishes intimate relationship with another man, in that extreme case Allah is asking her husband to educate her first.

If she does not listen and continues having intimate relationship outside marriage, then separate your bed with her. And if she still continues, then express your frustration in a symbolic fashion by touching her with the toothbrush.

There is no killing or beating to cause pain and bruises to a wife, even in an extreme situation. Some scholars disagree with the translation of Arabic word "Fadhreboo hunnah" as "strike" or "beat". They have also translated this word as "separate them". It means divorce them as a last resort. I have also written an article on this topic, which is available here.

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